by Michael Hollett, Now, June 7, 1990
Offstage, Moe Berg is the kind of guy who gets hit by lightning. His is the lap that spilled cups of coffee always find. He's the innocent bystander who catches the bullet. But onstage, the lead singer of Toronto's The Pursuit of Happiness is an inspired rock and roll demon, a barely contained hunk of steaming funk who oozes sex and rock defiance.
The Pursuit of Happiness have just hit the road in support of their strong second album, One Sided Story, and the revamped lineup brings their energized show to Ontario Place next Wednesday night. A rock Everyman, Berg's disarming androgyny propels a hard-hitting and witty rock attack that has a Canada-wide following and a growing legion of U.S. fans gained largely through committed American college radio airplay and extensive touring.
At a tuneup gig in Newmarket last week, they play friendly and frenzied to a hopping house. More than three years after their independent single I'm An Adult Now first started opening doors, the band is still fresh. But with a new, stronger bass player and serious touring under their belt, they rock harder.
Berg looks like a stage-charging fan as he flies about, as if fearing or anticipating being thrown off. Despite his shy manner, in performance he is a riveting, energized force slashing boisterously at his guitar and tossing his head with each song. With new singer Susan Murumets on one side and guitarist and vocalist Kris Abbott on the other, Berg blends into a wall of women as his gender is obscured under a faceful of cascading, chest-length blond hair.
With his guitar slung at crotch level, Berg's rock comes from the depths of the male psyche, but his clever songwriting gets beyond macho male posturing. Rather than a cartoon-like trip through an idealized man's world where the guy always gets the girl, in Berg's story somebody else always has the unfair advantage.
Berg understands how close love is to obsession, and he worries about where the good feelings go when they turn bad. He knows the term "desire" is ironic because it's about compulsion, not choice. The characters in Berg's songs know that things aren't likely to go their way, but, hey, have a nice day.
Chatting in his tour bus after the gig, Berg seems ever ready to surrender his seat. Intensely soft- spoken, he's left the rock power onstage.
"We don't have a real big macho facade," he says. "That doesn't really exist in the band, even though there's a real maleness to my songwriting. We're not a bunch of tough rock and rollers, even though we rock and roll."
But what about the sexual references and lusty calls to grasping arms? "Listen to early rock and roll. There's a sexuality about it and an aggressiveness to it that I hope rock and roll never loses. I think that sort of got distorted with all the big supergroups. Suddenly, it became a facade, it became something that you had to wear instead of something that was just a genuine outpouring."
Genuine is what Berg's music is. It reverberates from a tortured soul rather than a tough persona, and rings true as a result. Berg's songs have the squirming unease of a watcher rather than a doer. They are songs of longing rather than triumph, although he does allow the little pleasures that can feel so real.
"I'm trying to look at things from a slightly different perspective. I have a very ambiguous image, so I take a lot of different points of view. I don't have a macho stance to keep up. I even sing from a woman's point of view and I'm not really afraid of exposing my faults or the faults of any character in my songs.
"I'm kind of a closed person in real life. I don't really reveal that much about myself, even to my friends, so I think I exorcise a lot of my demons by writing the songs. When I'm onstage and when I'm writing, I guess the thing is, I'm not afraid for bad things to happen. I feel very vulnerable when I'm not onstage.
"Music is a place where I feel comfortable talking about things that I wouldn't feel comfortable in other situations talking about. There's a certain kind of security in saying something within my songs that I just don't feel in other situations."
Berg's thoughtfulness is born of filling in time standing at the edges of the action. It comes as no surprise that his school days were not glorious.
"I was a real invisible kid when I was growing up, especially in high school. I wasn't a real popular guy. I wasn't unpopular - I was invisible. Maybe that's what helped shape this whole thing."
But as the tables turn and Berg finds himself centrestage, he's not gloating, just happy to be in front of the crowd rather than blending into it. With a strong U.S. reception to their first album and growing interest in their latest work, The Pursuit of Happiness just may pull off a major American payday. But as he readies for his second rock and roll tour of duty, Berg is calm. After already having done a rock star turn, he's looking for his rewards in the playing.
"The thing that I learned from the last tour is to avoid being obsessed with things that don't really have anything to do with what you're doing. It's ridiculous to have a bad day just because some radio station didn't add you to their playlist.
"This is what you have always wanted to do if you are a musician. You always think about going on tour and having records and that kind of thing, so when you get the chance to do it, you should really take advantage of it and enjoy it.
"I don't mean you shouldn't be aware of how you are doing, just not obsessed. I think a lot of people in bands are obsessed with that kind of thing. I can only see that making you unhappy.
"Music is no different than any other business. It's cold and impersonal, and because it's the kind of business where a lot of stroking goes on, it's easy to be lulled into a sense that everyone in the world is your friend.
"It's like being a very cute baby when you are in a rock and roll band. Everyone wants to pull at your cheeks.
"But it's not real and the day after you leave town, it's somebody else they're doing that to."
Berg isn't bitter, just practical, in discussing the lessons music has taught this full-time fan. And it's with a fan's delight that Berg tells his tales of good times in rock.
"It's great to travel around and meet your fans. We've always had an open door policy and try not to retreat from our fans too much," he says sounding like someone who knows how he wished stars had acted when he was hanging around at their stage door.
He cites phone conversations with musical heroes Marshall Crenshaw and popster Wally Bryson of the Raspberries as two of his most exciting rock moments. And certainly he's living a fan's dream recording with his biggest hero; Todd Rundgren, who has handled production on both TPOH albums. Berg talks affectionately when he refers to "Todd," whose records he has bought faithfully for years.
"It was great this time because we had got to a comfortable position with him. When you first get involved with a producer, you don't know if what he's doing is going to work, so you question him more. But we had the security of having already done it once with him so I felt comfortable putting things in his hands."
The album was recorded last November in two-and-a-half weeks at Rundgren's studio/home near Woodstock, New York. The release has a lean sound that stands on the strength of Berg's songwriting and the simple, compelling arrangements that blend pop's innocence with rock's raunch.
Crashing drums along with Berg's wailing guitar and urgent vocals are soothed by the female singers' harmonies in a hook-laden mix that's quirky and catchy enough to click.
"It's actually a neat time for Canadian bands," says Berg. "I think there's a genuine interest in what's coming out of here. I think there have been enough unique bands coming out of Canada in the last little while so that the image of the Canadian band is really improved."
And a friendly response from U.S. college radio has helped put Berg's band in front of this audience.
"The college music scene in the U.S. is a real thing, it's a vital part of it and it really makes and breaks bands. A band can have a long and successful career, eve if it's on the college radio level. That's probably the best thing about the American market."
As the bus readies for the trip to Ottawa, the band and crew form a bucket brigade, passing cold beer and food hand to hand from back stage and onto their home for the next few weeks. It's been a hot show, even better than the albums. Now Berg is off again to transform himself nightly from blinking bookend to rebel rocker.
"Something happens when I perform," says Berg. "I think that's where I feel the most aggressive. I guess that's a good thing. If you're going to perform, you should be performing with some conviction."
Looking down as he makes his point, he adds, "I don't know if there is any room in this world for a well-adjusted Moe Berg. I guess maybe this is what I should be doing."
Copyright © 1990, NOW Communications Inc.